Shifting sands in the Middle East and new political realities in Washington are forcing J Street to recalibrate its strategy.
The dovish Israel lobby, whose supporters gathered recently in Washington for its second national conference, had previously tried to provide political cover for President Obama as he pushed for a speedy resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But now J Street finds itself prodding a reluctant administration to take a more assertive approach.
“We were the blocking-back, clearing space for the quarterback to do what we wanted him to do,” said J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, using a football analogy in an interview with the Forward. But, Ben-Ami added, Obama “hasn’t been able to push as aggressively as we would like,” and J Street has “switched from being out front and clearing the way, to pushing him to do something more.”
Speakers at J Street’s conference, which took place from February 26 to March 1, sought to inject a sense of urgency to the task of resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Among the many speakers making this case was Egyptian-born journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy, who won lengthy applause from the crowd. She stressed that Arabs who have risen up against their regimes will not be favorably disposed toward Israel if it does not resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.
“The hatred to Israel will not end,” she warned, until Israel starts treating Palestinians as “human beings who deserve freedom and dignity.”
But while the J Street audience warmly embraced this message, the hall fell mostly silent when Obama’s senior Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, outlined the administration’s agenda for the region. Ross mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict third in a list of Middle East policy priorities, after he discussed helping Egypt transition to democracy and promoting reforms in other Arab countries.
Ross made clear that the administration still wishes to address the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and warned that the lesson from the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is ”the danger of getting stuck with an unsustainable status quo.”
But when pressed by the moderator on the possibility of the United States making bridging proposals or outlining its own peace plan, Ross replied that the situation is not ripe for such a move.
“The process hasn’t played out yet,” he said, adding that the administration is currently focusing on its talks with each of the two parties.
This stance clashes with the official position of J Street, which advocates presenting an American plan outlining what an eventual peace accord would look like. J Street broke with the administration on this issue in December after it became clear that despite the failure of efforts to restart peace talks, Obama is not ready to put forward such an American plan.
While J Street has moved from a supporting role to aggressively pushing the administration for action, on Capitol Hill the group is still focused on creating political space for lawmakers who wish to depart from the Jewish establishment’s line on Israel.
J Street’s gala dinner on February 28 provided an opportunity to showcase the group’s congressional support. Conference organizers say that more than 50 members of Congress were in attendance, a good turnout for a young organization, although significantly fewer than the numbers seen at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual national conference, where more than half of Congress attends the dinner. J Street did land a noteworthy surprise guest in Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who introduced the evening’s honoree, Kathleen Peratis, a Manhattan lawyer who is also a member of the Forward Association’s board of directors.
Some members of Congress who participated in J Street’s conference spoke of the difficulties of embracing J Street’s agenda on Capitol Hill.
During one panel discussion, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said that “there are prices to pay” for supporting J Street’s views in Congress. In another discussion, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat, argued that on Middle East issues the “most important decisions are governed by fear, fear of losing votes, of losing campaign donations.” But Rep. Lois Capps, another California Democrat who is endorsed by J StreetPAC, said that there is a “noticeable change” in Congress and more openness to listening to other views on Israel.
However, lawmakers participating in the J Street conference — even those who received financial support from the group’s PAC — seemed reluctant to push Obama for a more aggressive American role in the peace process.
“President Obama has been a leader in trying to bring both sides to the table, and we wish the president success,” Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, told the Forward. Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, seemed more open to the idea of presenting an American peace plan, although he did not see such a move as imminent. “The time may come” to take such a step, Price said.
While sailing has not always been smooth on the political front, J Street’s conference demonstrated the group’s success in cultivating enthusiastic grassroots support, particularly on college campuses. According to J Street, 500 of the 2,300 participants in its conference were college students.
But in addition to showcasing J Street’s grassroots following, the conference also highlighted some challenges facing the 3-year-old organization. In particular, J Street faces a sometimes difficult balancing act in appealing to those in Washington and in the organized Jewish community while also meeting the expectations of the left-leaning activists who make up its base.
A meeting room hosting a discussion on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was overflowing with students and young activists eager to debate the issue. While J Street is officially opposed to BDS, it is more willing to entertain debate on the topic than are most mainstream Jewish groups, which see the BDS movement as a dangerous effort to delegitimize Israel.
“The BDS movement has a lot of things that it does that I don’t agree with, but it’s something you can’t ignore when talking about the political discussion,” said conference attendee Alon Mazor, a student at the University of California, Berkeley.
J Street came under fire from critics for including a BDS defender, Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, on the panel.
Another topic of debate at the conference was J Street’s recent statement urging the Obama administration not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. The Obama administration ultimately decided to veto the resolution, and J Street’s stance led to a public fight with one influential member of Congress who had previously been endorsed by its PAC — Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat — and soured the group’s already strained relations with the Israeli government.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the longtime director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a leading voice of the Jewish community’s liberal wing in Washington, delivered a friendly warning on this issue in his opening address at the start of the conference.
“The recent decision to oppose the veto raises concerns,” said Saperstein, arguing that it put J Street’s supporters “in a difficult position.” He said that if the group leaned too heavily to the left, it could lose its clout within the political system. “If you alienate your mainstream support you risk losing everything,” he said.
Ben-Ami, for his part, stood by J Street’s stance on the Security Council resolution, as well as its “big tent” policy. Asked by a reporter where he sees himself in this tent, Ben-Ami responded: “I’m the pole right in the middle holding the tent up.”
*Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org *
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.